Recently in the UK, the liberal views of Gary Lineker have attracted controversy. Lineker, the host of the BBC's football coverage and a star ex-player, compared government rhetoric on asylum to the Nazis, igniting a debate about free speech, BBC impartiality and Nazi comparisons. Previously, Lineker has been outspoken, supporting causes such as Remain and Palestinian self-determination.
For me, ‘Low Liberalism’ is a product of Remain Twitter. People with vaguely centre-left intuitions were so shocked and horrified that there turned out to be a nasty, brutish, floundering working class actually winning big votes in the UK and US that they decided to become a bit political.
Largely unsophisticated in the field, as you point out, they became shouty. In turn this incentivised unlikely elite figures like Jolyon Maugham, James O,Brien & Gary Lineker to build profiles as liberal warriors.
The first time anyone ever introduced themselves to me in the real world - adding that they were ‘cisgender’ - was at a party thrown for contributors by the New European newspaper.
Brexit and Trump jacked a lot of brains in the milquetoast centre, is my abiding feeling.
Excellent piece Tom, and gives a serious, considered label to what many of us have been (lazily) referring to as the "liberal metropolitan elite". Anyhow, I'm trying to square this idea with many of the other excellent ones I've come across recently eg. Matt Goodwin's "New Elite", Wesley Yang's "Successor Ideology" and Rob Henderson's "Luxury Beliefs". I think aspects of each fit neatly together!
It seems to me that more than just "low liberals" and "non-elites" who don't "think ideologically" (seems a bit of a patronising point of view to me, especially when thinking ideologically could be a bit of a mental straitjacket) tend not to know the limits of politics anymore. Plenty of our elites politicise everything as evidenced in the last few years of pandemic related hysteria for starters.
Only just reading this now but its fantastic! One of the things I've noticed amongst low liberals is the sense in which they see political acts from their side as non political. A friend who works at a national trust property couldn't understand why a senior colleague thought devoting time and resources to BLM/LGBTQ/FBPE type history and events could be considered political. That awful civil service tweet is the ultimate example, its gross and were it to be directed at something low liberals like it would rightly provoke disgust. The trouble is you end up in a tiresome and complex argument pointing out hypocrisy that is probably the kind of argument least suited to the quick wins and dunks of twitter
Interesting, thanks Thomas!
What a fascinating article.
A few thoughts if I may.
Many of the defects of Low Liberal thinking you identify are simply characteristics of (comparatively) uneducated people discussing topics in which you are an expert. (Previous generations used disparaging sexist terms for women discussing politics, but a large number of the ‘Unthinking Liberals’ you excoriate are making choices on emotional rather than intellectual grounds).
It seems self-evident that a large proportion of the Low Liberals you describe are young women. (This gender lens - for want of a better word- is also present when the professions of FBPE types are outlined). While political engagement and low level political activism by women is by no means a new development, the swing away from the right towards the centre-left since the 1990s is (at least from a southern English perspective). It is one of the most interesting - and yet least discussed - aspects of the continuing Brexit divisions.
There is a separate strand about the intellectual/philosophical roots of this Unthinking Liberalism that you describe. I doubt my own theories about its links to ur-Anglicanism in the UK, and the exceptionalism of English popular cultural values (fairness and decency as reasons for the rejection of Mosley in the 30s, and the failure of a populist right party to gain traction here since the GFC in 2008) will find favour with you.
But I do think you are looking in the wrong place if you think Maugham, O’Brien or (laughably) Lineker are any more than representatives of a wider inchoate discontent at the current government’s direction of travel.
Interesting post as always Tom. Ideological branding aside, can’t help but feel that Lineker was entitled to express his opinion about government policy, however clumsy his analogy may have been and however ill-informed he may be on the subject.
Whilst polarisation may not be ideal, the balance of expressed opinion in the British media seems to be in favour of right-wing perspectives and perhaps it is no bad thing that a prominent and popular figure stands up for a liberal cause.
Low Liberalism looks a very helpful term to group the phenomenon which I have been thinking of as “hard centrism” - a permanently angry, rough-edged version of liberalism without the tolerance and democratic ideals. An instrumental version of liberalism, if you like. Examples can be seen in their hundreds Below The Line in the Guardian every time a political analysis piece is published.
You have precisely captured why I find these people so annoying.
Interesting points. One thought: Since you are liberal, “low liberalism” seems of secondary importance to “low conservatism.” But for a conservative, it is exactly reversed. From a birds-eye view, perhaps they are equally problematic (unless one is more “low” than another, which if true will vary by country and context.)
'Certain members of traditional liberal professions, such as the law and academia, have been central to the development of low liberalism' (TP)
And as if by magic, our old friend Jolyon Maugham has a piece in the Guardian today entitled, "Why I’m joining more than 100 lawyers in refusing to prosecute climate protesters"
Is that what academics call a paradigm?
I suppose low liberalism is a function of pluralism, which is the bank holiday of belief in nothingism, or what academics call nihilism - a result of a free for all that has ditched several babies with several bath's worth of water. You are right to suggest that the likeness with the alt right stems from the social media revolution which, in its entirety - twitter, Facebook, tic Tok, et al is a sort of Joseph Goebbels wet dream. It is an arena where historical fact, precedent, the rule of law and indeed the truth, is dispensed with in an instant.
The 'online arms race' is a linguistic issue as much as anything - a battle for linguistic hegemony. Using the wrong adjective is wrought with danger these days. Simply being the wrong type of person is.
Another telling news item today perhaps gave cause for hope. Apparently, Keir Starmer has been told that if Labour cannot define what a woman is, they will lose the election. That is just another piece of data on my very complicated predictive chart, which insists that there will be a hung parliament next time. So in a way there will be no end point, but just like Dr Who, a regeneration or a re-alignment of the discourse.
I don't really understand the difference between low liberalism and conventional leftism. Seems like Lineker, the civil service etc are just ordinary lefties of the sort that have existed for centuries?